Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Gerald Shoenfield Theatre on Broadway
BS Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 88
“Come From Away” is a very entertaining musical that is given a near pitch-perfect production on Broadway. Yet there is something strange and unnerving about this show that comes to New York after two highly acclaimed West Coast productions. I believe every theatre production tells the audience how the viewer should receive the play or musical and our assessment of its success should rely heavily on what it tries to accomplish. Otherwise, we fall into the trap that critics so often encounter – telling us what the play and production should have tried to accomplish. This show is very clear on its intent and it most definitely attains it goal.
As we all know, on September 11, 2001, all air traffic into and out of the United State was put on hold for five days as our government tried to grapple with the worst terrorist attack in this country’s history. Planes were diverted to the nearby international airports as our government and foreign officials evaluated the safety of resuming air travel. “Come From Away” celebrates the story of an isolated small town in Newfoundland that becomes the refuge for 7,000 passengers on deferred flights to the United States. The show demonstrates the goodness of the town’s people to stranded strangers, the way they pull together to relieve the passengers’ stress and divert their attention from terrors of the news, and the way strangers become friends under the most taxing conditions.
The music, book and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein combine seamlessly to reveal the struggles within the town and the difficulties that a truly international, dare I say alien, set of passengers have adapting to circumstances beyond their control. But adapt they do and their combined spirit turns toils into a celebration of the things that make humanity human. The show is full of humor and a company of sixteen talented performers play multiple characters – residents and visitors – with aplomb and warmth. Most of the music is sung in ensemble and is staged with imagination and skill. The set is simple and there are only the barest of effects. It’s about the people and the way they form a “more perfect union” in the face of such adversity.
The score is a sort of country-western sound mixed with the Irish, English and Cornish influences brought to Newfoundland by their ancestors. Much of the music sounds the same but it blends perfectly with the story and the sound of a full ensemble gives credence to the sense of unity and developing solidarity. In 100 minutes with no intermission, we become a part of this celebration as only a good musical can induce. So, on its own terms, the show does exactly what it sets out to do and it brings its audience very pleasantly along with it.
But as the show progressed and the sense of disorder and disillusion gave way to camaraderie and merriment, something was tugging at me. This was 9/11. This exuberance played against the picture of ground zero in my mind, and I felt almost a sense of guilt for being seduced by the show. The script does not ignore the unimaginable tension that these stranded passengers faced. One of the women has a son who is a NYC fire fighter and she cannot get any information about his whereabouts. Others must wait in long lines for access to telephones in this isolated township just to assure worried relatives that they are safe and being treated well. And in the process, we are given tidbits about each character’s back-story and their evolving relationships with each other. But there is still this nagging sense of what’s going on “out there.”
This show is relatively unique in its structure. It’s a docu-musical – an attempt to dramatize actual events. Documentary musicals are fairly common but usually they are about well-known people: Carole King in “Beautiful;” James Cagney in “Cagney;” or, on a more serious side, a set of perverse assassins and would-be killers in Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Word has it that the authors did copious research on the people involved in this less famous set of events and they have done a very effective job of making them real, although occasionally inescapably predictable: the Muslim chef who evokes suspicion, the Orthodox Rabbi who needs to observe kosher, the gay couple who are torn apart by their different response to the welcoming strangers. But the story is less about the characters than it is a portrait of collaboration and caring.
It is significant that this show found very receptive audiences in Seattle, Washington, and La Jolla, California. Certainly our whole country was drawn into the horrors and anxieties of 9/11. But I lived in San Francisco when this terrorist attack occurred and, even though I knew the city and site quite well, in those days, I was still a tourist. Now that I am New Yorker, somehow this show has a sort-of inexplicable tension for me, a sensation that I should not be feeling so good about all of this. It will be interesting to see how “the NYC natives” respond.